Unica Zürn: Surrealist, Schizophrenic, Artist, Author

I was instantly transfixed the first time I came across Unica Zürn’s phantasmagoric creatures. I felt a shift in perception, as if her work had the capacity to grant one access to an alchemaic realm – if only you knew the secret cypher. Indeed, Zürn spent much of her life absorbed by omens, symbols, and the sense a menacing demimonde governed her mind.

For someone who suffered dissociative states and catastrophic depression, the concept of a fantasy world walking in tandem with reality compelled Zürn until her death. Her writing betrays agonizingly tormented mental states. At age 54, she ends her life by leaping from an apartment balcony in Paris where she lived with surrealist artist, Hans Bellmer.

For me, her artwork often resembles sea creatures, rendered with fastidious and obsessive shapes – creatures that might appear in nightmares. Notebook sketches reveal hallucinatory, anthropomorphic organisms that H.R. Giger must have surely seen before developing his “Xenomorph” Alien creature. She created a wealth of drawings in notebooks while institutionalized in Paris at Sainte-Anne Hospital. The notebooks are fertile and depict a netherworld of beings that appear to be struggling for survival. Her art echoed her obsessions and mental fissures.

Zürn’s use of entopic graphomania and automatism, falls squarely into the surrealist canon though it wasn’t easy for women to access this rarified artworld realm at that time [Is it ever easy for women to access disciplines traditionally dominated by men?]. Her fraught relationships with Bellmer and Henri Michaux, a poet and painter – who would introduce Zürn to the world of hard-core drugs – no doubt, further deteriorated her mental state. Ultimately, Zürn was an exceptional artist – and writer – who persisted despite crushing obstacles. She deserves more accolades.



— Deborah Johnstone